Wednesday, 12 July 2017

(T)radical Testpieces in the Blueys

So, I've been back climbing again (post-injury) for a while, and lately I've been feeling somewhat guilty...

Guilty about the amount of time I've spent putting up new bolted routes and climbing sporty sport, at the expense of my favourite disciplines: Trad, Multipitch and general Obscurity.

Neil Monteith's photo of me working my
Wonga Pigeon Project. The hard part is
where all the chalk is on the arete.
Don't get me wrong, I love developing new routes, and I thoroughly enjoy Sport climbing... but I believe that climbing is an all-encompassing activity, best enjoyed in its many varieties (much like a Whitman's Sampler, whereby lately I've been eating only Peppermint chocolate and missing out on all that hideous, hideous Turkish Delight lying in wait just around the corner, haunting my nightmares)...

And thus, having mostly mended from my injuries, and being well into the process of growing some muscles (again), I arbitrarily decided to dedicate the next month (or so) to repeating some of the hard-ish Trad testpieces of the Blue Mountains that have somehow managed to escape me over the last 8 years.

The thing is, so many of these classic Trad routes -especially the somewhat harder ones- get talked about by all of us Blueys trad climbers all the time. We make bold statements like "Hell yeah, I'm up for that! Let's do it mate! Let's sort a date to lock it in!", and then we just never get around to climbing them. I'm certainly not excusing myself, I'm as bad (or possibly worse, since I have no life outside of work and climbing, and thereby have more time to get his stuff done). Lately, I've grown sick of waiting for all of these stars to align (read: trying to get other psyched climbers to fully commit), I've become tired of the procrastinating and speculating from others. One way or another I was going to get these routes done, and if I couldn't sort out steadfast climbing partners, I would call in my trusty belayer-on-call: my dad!

Grasshopper (70m 2-Pitch Trad 25)

Simon Carter's photo of Mike Law on
Grasshopper (70m 25), taken from his
Blue Mountains Climbing - 2015 Ed.
Anyone who has seen Simon Carter's photo of Mike Law on this stunning route knows the appeal of it. Though relegated to a small corner-photo in the 2 most recent editions of the guide, the image presents a stunning 50m pitch of varied splitter crack on a vibrant orange face, which narrows to a hairline seam-crack in the top 20m. Somehow escaping a first ascent until 2008 when it was climbed as an aid route at M5, Mike Law worked it on top rope and freed it placing all gear on lead in 2002, and since then it's had clean repeats from Zac Vertrees, Tom O'Halloran and Tom Samuels (I haven't heard of any others), all of whom are -would you believe- kinda strong-ish (I guess).

I knew the route well, not only from frothing gallons over the photos of it (Simon was kind enough to send me some high resolution versions of his photos for me to obsess over quite a few years ago), but from having looked across at it for literally hours while developing 2 new bolted routes on the blank face to the right (Cicada and Cricket) a bit over 4 years ago. It had escaped my efforts because of its reputation: the crux is often quite wet, it looks hard, and because a good friend of mine had had a bad fall at the crux a few years ago, in which he ripped gear, injured himself and bailed. Needless to say, I was rather intimidated, and so had joined the ranks of the procrastinators: "Hell yeah, I'll have a crack at that... one day... maybe..."

Thom Samuels flashes Grasshopper back
in 2012 (photo: Ben Jenga).
With my new resolution to get these routes done, I raced out to Pierces Pass after a morning dental appointment (hooray for wisdom teeth, right?), and hiked in from the top to inspect the climb. I knew the way in via Rigby Hill well from my previous bolting efforts in the area, and soon enough I had my rope running the length of climb, and it was time to check out my objective.

A quick aside here, if I may:

To be honest, I really struggled with whether or not to try for a true ground-up attempt at the crux pitch. Normally, ground-up is my strongly-held belief when it comes to trad, and I agonised about what to do before heading out there for the inspection. My rationalisation for the top-down inspection was based on knowing that the crack is often wet and vegetated at the crux, being concerned about the fiddly, specific and spaced gear, and apprehensive that if -like my friend- I had a mini epic getting up it (or took a bad fall), I might be demotivated and -also like my friend- never get around to coming back for the tick. At any rate, now that I've confessed to my inferior style of ascent, permit me to continue my story.

Looking down the line of
from just below the top.
On rap I chalked up the key holds, sussed the gear I would use (all of which I was going to place on lead: there would be no pre-placed gear on this one, meaning that the gear would be quite spacious at times), pulled out about a kilogram of vegetation from the crux section, and dried out the now empty crack with a chamois. In the interest of being straight about my approach to how I climbed this, I admit that I also did a giant lap on Top Rope Solo which -over the course of about 1.5 hours- allowed me to figure out my various sequences for this 50m monster, add a bit more chalk, and decide how I was going to place the gear. Most importantly, though I didn't have all the moves "dialed" as such, I knew roughly how I was going to try and approach them, and had enough confidence to wholeheartedly tackle the runout crux section where my buddy had previously called it quits. At that point it got dark, I bailed, and went home.

Would you trust this belayer? Actually,
I'm not even climbing yet and already
he's showing more attention than any
climber at Villawood ever did.
The following Saturday (1st July) I headed back out to Pierces Pass East Side with my trusty belayer in tow. My Old Man had previously belayed me when I'd sent the first of my bolted routes here (Cicada, 65m 2-pitch 24/25), so he knew the score. It's so easy to walk past Grasshopper as you head down the main Pierces Pass walking track, as it's positioned at a strange angle to the track, and the splitter crack isn't immediately obvious without a decent inspection (perhaps that's why it went for so long without being climbed), but every time I head down the track -even if for other objectives- I always pause to stare in admiration and pay my respects. In my not-so-humble opinion, Grasshopper might well be the single best "line" I've ever seen in the Blue Mountains.

From the base of the route there's a short, poxy gr15 dirty, shallow corner to a cosy ledge and the start of the crack proper. With my Old Man properly installed and comfortable there, I racked up and set off...

Looking down the lower (gr21ish)
section of Grasshopper.
The first 25m is about gr21, and makes for a great warmup both physically and stylistically. It follows a fairly continuous crack line that harbours some genuinely tricky moves as you move about in the crack and on the face. There is great -spaced- gear throughout, but the gear is very specific and fiddly, and both of the hard sequences on this section (including the punchy final crux, which is at the top) has you pulling moves above (good) gear. I oozed my way up this section, thoroughly enjoying the journey and placing all gear on lead, to find myself halfway up the climb at a small ledge (with a set of loweroff anchors off to the side). There's a no-hands rest at this stance, so I chilled there, shifted the (surprisingly small) rack of gear on my harness into its correct place for the next section, and composed myself.

3m off the stance is the gear that protects the crux. The gear is only "okay" (being in polished, rounded, somewhat wet and muddy rock), but I plugged in numerous pieces and equalised them together in the belief that "something would hold" and reversed back to stance. In hindsight, looking at Simon's photos of Mike on the crux, I realise that he must've dug out even more vegetation than I did, as it looks like he got different gear in the seam-crack at this section, which may have been superior to what I was using. At any rate, my harness was now super-light: I only had a total of 5 Wires and 1 cam to protect the entire top 22m of the climb, which contains all the hardest climbing.

The start of the crux. Soooo awkward.
All too soon it was go-time, and I was off. The crux starts by moving your feet to the same height as your gear, then an awkward move as you try and layback off the edge of the tips crack. From there you get a slippery, narrow "podded" part of the crack, (where you could pre-place extra gear, but literally cannot place gear on lead), and now you're at the crux of the crux: trusting a "dot" for your left foot and a trifle bigger dot for your right foot, standing tall off slippery hold and pouncing to a good fingerlock and some gear. I'll readily admit that I hesitated a moment before committing to the pounce (a fall from here is still safe, but quite big, and you have a chance of hitting the slab on the lower section in the same way my friend had when he injured himself), but made the move despite my doubts, and stuck it with a cry of relief.

A view of the crux section.

Wacking in a bomber wire, the following moves are super-sustained gr22 slightly steep face climbing, with only a few (read: 3) worthwhile wires in 10m of climbing. The moves are classic Blueys thinness -featuring beautiful rock in a classic position-, but -best of all- you're doing it well above stonker gear, following the hairline seam to the anchors like some sort of yellow-brick road to the Emerald City. Absolutely beautiful.

5m from the top you reach a stance where you can chill (and get your dad take photos), wack in another wire, and commit to the upper crux: a gr23ish boulder-problem with a small wire at your feet protecting the move. It's not too hard, but its the sort of move you really have to "want", as it culminates in a very snatchy pounce from an awkward body position. Hesitating again as I eyed off the victory hold, I coiled, pounced, and it was done!

Chilling on the jugs before the upper

A few fairly juggy moves protected by an RP lead to a stonker #3 cam, a rather thrilling slopey mantle to reach the top anchor, and I'd sent Grasshopper 1st shot on the day as a giant pitch, placing all gear on lead. I'll call it a tick on the "2nd lap" (but with the caveat that my first Rope-solo lap was a loooooooooooong lap).

Looking at the clock it was only 11am, so I lowered off and stripped my gear (which is quite easy to do when you have an 80m rope), shared a victory sandwich with my dad (huzzah!) and decided to try and tackle another trad testpiece (and old nemesis of mine) in the arvo. We blasted back up the short-but-intense Pierces Pass Walking track, and were on the road again by midday.

Victory Sandwich (or Salad, according
to this photo)!
Regarding the route... Well, I think I've probably heaped enough praise on it already, but I will say a few more words about it: It's probably middle-tier 25 if you do it placing all gear on lead, maybe hard 24 on pre-placed gear (and a bit less scary through the crux). The climbing is 3-star mega classic, but the sections of "less than perfect" rock and somewhat wet and muddy patches (especially through the crux) do devalue it a bit -in my opinion-, so I'll settle for 3-star classic (as opposed to Mega classic). It's not dangerous, but the gear is spaced and is very particular, especially if placing it on lead. A ground-up attempt (especially now that I've gardened it) is totally safe, but -unless you're a Zac Vertrees or a Tom O- be prepared to aid past the crux to get the rope above it to work the moves, as it's sequency, bouldery, and committing. It's quintessential trad following a crack, but doesn't really have much crack climbing in it (though some crack skills will help). If anyone wants any beta, or my gear list (or even the full video of my Send for some live-action beta), feel free to hit me up for the info.

Get on it!

Bad Moon Rising (35m Trad 23)

Okay, so maybe it was a bit ambitious, but I was riding on a high from the Grasshopper send, so I gunned it back to Mount Victoria, out to Zig-Zag crag, past the malevolent (and frankly, downright evil) Transcendental Meditation (35m Trad 22) (while, quite deliberately not looking at it for fear of breaking into apoplexy), and all the way to Bad Moon Rising, an intimidating steep crack with a very hard crux.

A photo of me attempting Bad Moon Rising back in January 2014.

It's an intriguing-looking climb, with the hideously disgusting shale-choss start (that makes Dogface look good) soon forgotten about when you cross the threshold into the initial pleasant stemming corner. The corner steepens and gets progressively harder, before launching into a fully-fledged tips-undercling traverse beneath a large roof, culminating in extremely bouldery moves to gain a hold past the lip, turn-the-roof, and get established on the headwall above. It's a particularly outrageous crux, as the end of the roof forms an arete with the opposing walls, producing one of the most exposed positions you can find in climbing.

Giles Bradbury on Bad Moon Rising (35m 23), placing the
crux gear mid-crux, the same way that I do it.
First climbed in 1980 (!!!) by Rod Young and Ant Prehn, it was once regarded as a testpiece trad route (there's an iconic photo of Giles Bradbury on the crux, clipping the fixed wire that existed there once-upon-a-time), but is now largely forgotten about. I'd had a crack at it 3.5 years ago, and Onsighted to the main crux, battled at the crux for about 45min, eventually gotten past it and gone to the top. At the time I'd written it off as "too hard for me".

But that was years ago... I'm stronger and bolder and -frankly- far more awesome than I was back then... This route should be easy now!

Yeah right!

The sweet stemming corner at the start.
Photo from back in 2014.

Still belayed by my father (who wasn't very impressed with the disintegrating shale-ledge stance, and distinct lack of any real belay anchor), I had him keep me off belay until I got a few pieces of dubious gear behind the shale-features, as I grovelled up a landslide of rubbish rock to gain the crack proper. Fortunately, there's a hard-to-spot stonker bit of gear here which stops you going splat (from about 6m up), and also protects the challenging V1 boulder-moves that follow. Once in the crack, it's all sweet... Seriously, if it weren't for the manky start, this would be yet another Trad classic.

Whipping off Bad Moon Rising... An
exciting fall as you swing around the
arete (followed by much cursing!).
At this point the rock is great, the gear is good (lots of small-medium wires) and the climbing is fun. The stemming gets a bit more strenuous as you get higher, the corner gets steeper, and the vegetation gets a bit more... um... pervasive... Yes, up until this point fun times are had by all. Then you reach the point where the corner stops at the roof, and you follow the thin crack outwards under the roof to the lip. This section of the climb is notorious for being quite vegetated, and I was dismayed to see that it was far more overgrown than it has been when I'd tried it previously. Gardening on lead as I tentatively traversed out from the safety of the corner, tic-tacing my feet on small holds, and tenuously using the intermittent underclings I could find amongs the vegetation. I gave up trying to dig out enough space for gear and just gunned it to the end of the roof, where I stitched it up with so much gear I probably could've hung a portaledge from the nest and had a ledge-party with all my mates. After procrastinating ("I'll just shake out on these bad holds for a bit longer"), I eventually committed to the crux, totally punted it, and went for the lob. D'oh!

Pulling back up, I did some more gardening (unearthing a crucial undercling that still had chalk on it!), and then proceeded to bumble around the crux sequence for another 30min or so. I could do the moves, but not at anything near 23 (try 25++), and I was trying to find a way of climbing it at roughly the grade of the route. In the end, I settled for a sequence which I would regard as solid gr24, but was doable -albeit committing- and was going to be the way I tackled the route on the Send.

Mmmm... vegetated... "Damn horticulture
crap... some Global Warming will take care
of you!"
Photo from 2014.
By this time it had gotten dark, so I stripped the route and bailed, but was back again the following Sunday 9th July, this time belayed by a very hungover Rene Provis (who had been at a wedding the day before, and was struggling not to vomit as watched me while I climbed). I knew the gear I needed, I knew the moves, but despite this I was still doubtful that I could Send it due to the hard, scary and gymnastic nature of the crux. I didn't really feel "mentally" warmed-up enough to succeed.

Looking from the corner out towards the
crux (after all my gardening efforts).
The tick in the roof marks the hidden
Nevertheless, I was off-and-running. I sketched my way up the mank start, laughed my way up the stemming corner, appreciated my way through the roof traverse (it was great being able to have actual holds and gear to protect it, now that the vegetation was gone), and suddenly I was back at the crux, stitching up the last bits of small gear and eyeing off the move. The crux itself commences by stepping up onto a really high, small, slippery footer and fingering the undercling crack. You do a quick foot-swap, hump the arete-feature (using the leg wrapped around the opposing side of the arete to keep you stable), take a small undercling-sidepull in the roof, and span past the lip of the roof blindly to gain an "okay" hueco feature. From here you core-up and release the left hand, cutting loose to match the hueco, at which point I flick my right foot up and get a heel-toe cam above my head. Now totally upside down I place a 0.4 cam (where the fixed wire used to be), then switch to desperately trying to rock over my right heel while pressing with the outside edge of my foot on the (mostly) blank wall to gain some upward momentum. Eventually I tag an okay ringlock, rock a bit more, and make a biiiiiiiiig stretch to a mega jug. Another piece of pro, and then it's exposed jugging to the top.

Sending Bad Moon Rising!
And like a dream I was at the top, once again ticking the route placing all gear on lead. As Rene was too unwell to second the route, I had the joy of jumaaring back up the route on second to to get my gear back, but by midday it was all done and dusted, and we were off to climb some easier stuff at Zig Zag (stuff more suited to Rene's present state of sobriety).

I can see why this was once a hardman testpiece, and I can see why it's out of fashion. If it got more laps to keep the roof clean of shrubbery (and maybe a bolt belay to start, since there isn't really any gear of note for the first few meters), I don't see anything to prevent it becoming a classic on every crack-climbers ticklist once again. Sure, it's super-cruxy, but the crux is gnarly, acrobatic, strenuous and ridiculous for a trad route Most importantly: it's immeasurably memorable. I'd definitely recommend the route as a "lower-tier classic" even with the rubbish start. What do you guys think, would a bolt belay below the route be acceptable?

So, two rad trad crack testpieces done and dusted... Why not try one more and go for the hat-trick?

Supercrack (70m 3-pitch Trad 24)

The original Rock edition with Lucas Trihey
climbing Supercrack.
Another of those "every crack climber knows about it, but no one ever climbs it" kind of climbs. Lucas Trihey scored the First ascent with Bruce Cameron back in 1996, and purportedly described the crux pitch 3 as "Australia's answer to Separate Reality" (in Yosemite Valley). I'd heard stories of a 9m perfect-hands roof-crack which needed 8-9 x BD #2's to climb, and I can only imagine that Lucas was frothing when he saw it, as it is quite the find indeed. I also couldn't really find any info on anyone else actually free-climbing it clean in recent years, which -of course- piqued my interest further. Having said that, considering Lee Cossey cleaned up a long-standing trad project nearby (at grade 28, no less) and some of the other strongmen who've passed by it on the way down the gully over the years, it seems likely that it has, in fact, been repeated (probably by some local crusher for whom it's "no big deal").

"It's up there!", Steve points to
Supercrack P3 (20m 24) in the
background, with P2 (20m 17) to his
Well, a punter like me climbing it clean would be a "big deal", in my opinion.

My friend North-Face Steve (Tangent: apparently his real name is Steve Winnacott... I once had an embarrassing experience when I was to meet up with a "Steve Winnacott" in Biship, California, and didn't actually know who "Steve Winnacott" was -as I've always known him as "North-Face Steve" (can you guess which company he works for?)) has been working hard to free a rad trad project of his, but was being stymied by some strenuous hard-trad pitches. He confided that he was looking for some burly crack training, and it just so happened that I had the perfect candidate for him...

Steve Old Skools his way up P2 (20m 17).
Consumer Advice: Bring some BIG cams.
We made our way out to the Gardens of Stone National Park bright and early on Saturday (8th July), and down to the Rain Cave. If you haven't been to Rain Cave, it's an impressive weatherproof feature, quite deep and sheltered from all but the most determined of wind-backed rain. But -more importantly- it has a smattering of well-bolted and interesting sport routes in the gr22-24 range, all of which are well worth your time when the Blueys is properly flooded. Mega or not, Sporty Sport was not our goal for the day, so we exited the cave and continued down the overgrown and loose gully in search of a Separate Reality look-alike. It's not a long hike, but it is a bit of a scrub bash if you remain in the gully proper, so here's a Top Gear Top Tip: If you scramble along the ironstone slabs on the left side of the gully all the way down from the Rain Cave, it's faster and easier to get to Supercrack.

At any rate, eventually we found our way to the start of the route. Pitch 1 (25m 12) is just a dirty grey grade-nothing slab which can -literally- be walked around, which we promptly did. Now on the tier above, we could see that Pitch 2 (20m 17) looked pretty good, but -surprisingly- it could also could be scrambled around, bringing you all the way up to the money pitch. We resolved to tackle Pitch 2 as a warmup because -as opposed to P1- it actually looked funky and consisted of real climbing. We did, however, scramble up to the belay below P3 to deposit our gear before skittering back down to begin the climbing.

Steve was up, and as it turns out P2 is pretty gnarly for a 17. An easy trench leads to some wide stemming with tricky pro (unless you remember to bring a #5, which we'd managed to leave in our packs, now on the belay above us). Committing to the moves above some rather dubious gear, he discovered that the climbing isn't as hard as it looks, but is -in fact- super old school, as the steep bridging becomes chimneying, accompanied by a spot of ye olde Body Squeeze. He polished it off, feeling much warmer now, and got his first real look at "Australia's answer to Separate Reality", where I soon joined him (yes, I climbed P2 this time, I didn't just walk around it again).

Standing on some tic-tac footers through the roof.
In reality, it probably does overhang about 9m, measuring from where it first gets steep to where you've turned the lip and are established in the juggy chimney above, though -to be honest- its not a true uninterrupted roof crack. This is because the roof itself is a huge bell-arch, and consequently there are often little tic-tac footers on one side of the arch or the other. Regardless, it's a soaring and inspiring line, and after getting a good look at it I was inspired and confident: I love thuggy cracks (especially roof-cracks), but they are few and far between in our neck of the woods.

Double-Fist Jams to glory!!!
With the high winds and the low temperatures, it was full arctic as I set about the Onsight attempt, which commenced with some easy low-angle climbing before the crack switched gear from slab to roof almost immediately. Double-placing pro to protect these moves (I wasn't sure I'd be able to stop and place more gear), I launched into the crack, which featured almost perfect jams and enough features for me to heel-hook or press against without having to jam my feet in the crack proper. After the first few moves there was a beautiful sculpted jug outside the crack which was perfect for placing more gear, then it was back into the bowels of the earth for a for more moves before gaining a small tic-tac footrail, from which I could get into an extreme stemming stance and place some more gear. At this point the jams widen to perfect fists, but with "reasonable" footers the jams were still great, despite the angle. After some more stemming and more gear, I transitioned to facing the other direction in the crack (with a stylish cut-loose, of course), and was now facing the final moves to gain the lip.

Me turning the lip... and fucking stoked!
Though I was definitely getting pumped, I was feeling super-solid (let's face it, if you've got the guns and the technique to jam a roof crack, a #2-sized jam is basically the best jug in the world) and was plugging in gear all over the place, expecting it to get hard (in which case I'd be running it out, rather than trying to place gear). But at this stage, it wasn't the pump that was going to kill me, it was the frigid cold, as I couldn't' feel my hands at all and my forearms felt "sluggish".

Steve splitting his groin to achieve the bridge on his flash.
Launching at the final sequence, which -bafflingly- involves climbing down around a blocky feature to gain the lip and a hidden jug, I was fairly confident that it was in the bag. From the stunning position right at the edge of the roof, I plugged in one last cam, grunted through a few more steep jams, and it was over; I'd onsighted supercrack! The easy ironstone chimney was dispatched with no great effort, I built an improvised anchor on a bollard at the top, and lowered back down the route so that Steve could have a crack at it.

Steve on his way to flashing Supercrack.
His effort was awesome, to say the least. Just back from an injury, and without the experience at steep crack climbing, he was full of doubt and kept talking down his chance at success. But by Jove he put his critic (namely: himself) to rest, as he scrapped his way through the roof, somehow contorting himself into utterly ridiculous positions in his desperation, but battling on anyway. Despite being shorter than me, he managed to get the same stemming stance in the roof (I can only assume he literally performed "the splits" to achieve this, since *I* was ripping my crotch seam to achieve it at my height), and then -once again- going all Cirque De Soleil as he pretzeled himself at the lip of the roof. By his own admission he was almost "off" several times, but somehow stayed on and kept battling. He made noise and fought hard, and I totally got into the spirit of things as I cheered and harassed him up the route.

Steve's victory roar: "roar!"
And then, impossibly, he too was in the chimney above the roof, panting like he'd just run a marathon and whooping for joy. Steve had managed to flash the route on my gear. Hell yeah! After topping out, he decided that he was too destroyed to try and back-climb the crack to get the gear back, so -after he returned to terra firma- I went up again for a gear-retrieving "victory lap".

Steve's tape job. Notice how un-mangled his hands are?

Now, regular readers will know my stance against taping for cracks, but in this case I'd made a tiny exception to the rule: I'd used (literally) a single layer of tape (so < 1mm of extra thickness) to my hands, knowing that this sort of sharp rock and this type of climbing would shred my hands if they were totally unprotected, and possibly prevent any chance at a redpoint burn if I blew the onsight. Furthermore, because this sort of crack is one that is definitely easier with a few layers of tape (or hand jammies), I didn't feel like I could consider the challenge of the crack "complete" if I applied any real volume of tape. While this "almost no" tape mentality was okay for the Onsight lap, and I came down with only a few scratches after the tick, the second lap was a total hand shredder, and every jam was torturous as more and more layers of skin were devoured by the rock. As the gear was already in-situ and I'd already ticked the route, I went for the "speed repeat", and hammed it up a bit more with some crack-campusing and unnecessary cut-looses (how often do you get to do that while double-jammed in a roof crack?), but suffered for it as -after downclimbing the route and removing the gear-, I returned to the ground with shredded meat masquerading as hands, for which my planned career as a hand model was forever over. Even at work now, I regularly get comments by colleagues about my beaten up and bloody hands. But regardless, I am satisfied that I tackled the crack (size) as the it was presented, with nothing to make it easier by amending handsize (even if only co-incidentally).

Notice how mangled my untaped
hands are... 5 days after the
With the double-send done and the gear retrieved, we headed right down the gully to the Main Wall, where another classic hard-ish trad testpiece -Sacred Ground (65m Trad 23) resides. It was too late in the day to have a crack at it, but we were both inspired, and made plans to return in the next few weeks to launch up that one as well.

"Sure mate, I'll do it. Let's lock in a date to make it happen", right? Hopefully not. I think we're both pretty psyched to get it done!

And in other news, Steve is back on his mega Wolgan project next weekend, so with any luck he'll have some positive news about crushing the crux pitches on that, aided by his newfound muscles from climbing Supercrack.

So, my review of the climb itself:

Me on the Send of Supercrack, climbing into the sunset...
I can't comment on P1, but it looked rubbish. P2 isn't very hard, but it's a cool (and slightly intimidating) line, and made for a totally worthwhile warmup, which I thoroughly recommend doing. P3 is -obviously- the money, and is completely unique in the Blueys (in my opinion). Though probably soft at 24 (even for the true onsight), it is the sort of pitch that would definitely be even easier with decent taping. Having said that, if you don't mind devaluing the difficulty of the route, I'd recommend taping properly, as my ruined hands are a testament to what happens when you fail to do so. In some ways its the Gas Krankenstation (Nowra Route) of Blueys trad: It's all mega jugs (assuming you can pump and jam #2 in the same way a normal climber can hang off a bucket-jug all day long), it just comes down to having the endurance to slog it out and carry the extra weight of the gear, and having the head to deal with placing and climbing "above" gear. Though harder than Gas Krankenstation (Krankenstation also has mega jug feet the whole way, to say the least), it carries the same novelty and outrageousness that goes with climbing horizontally for such a length at a relatively tame grade. I don't think it compares to Separate Reality, and it's not without it's faults, but damn it's fun, and I recommend it for sure. I'd suggest bringing 6-7 #2's, 1 x #1 and 1 x #3 for the route itself (though you could safely and confidently do it with less, for the onsight I was glad to be able to double-place and commit to each sequence confidently), plus some extra gear for the belay and a top anchor.

I also had the chance to spend yet another day sieging away at my Wonga Pigeon Project (<sighs>). With any luck I'll have some other RadVentures to share in the next few weeks. I've definitely got plans in that vein.

For now though, be safe.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Back in the Brown (trousers)...

Wow!  Apparently it’s been almost 6 months since I posted an update to my blog. 

There are a lot of reasons for my prolonged silence: 3 months of downtime (with no climbing or training due to my elbow injury) and the inherent depression that comes with such a forced restriction; starting work at a new job (and consequently having to come to grips with being back on the “road most travelled”) in an office in Parramatta, commencing a new Uni Course (this time in Business Law); and simply not having many worthwhile stories to share.

Redpoint Day 34: Currently stumped by the infamous
Spreadsheet crux... No progress. Feeling this
project is hopeless. Thinking about giving up.
Lately, I seem to have been embroiled in a 5-days-per-week epic redpoint siege, with no clear end in sight. For a time, I thought that perhaps I was actually just doing “repeat laps for training” (as I have a brief perception of success at the end of each day of effort), but I’ve ultimately come to the sad conclusion that I am in fact redpointing. The sort of redpointing where you fall off the same move again-and-again (for nearly 6 months, in this instance), and go home with no feelings of satisfaction, completion or improvement. And like any good redpointing epic, despite my misgivings I find myself right back at it the following day.

Nearing the end of the 5am approach..
Ready for another day of redpointing.
Compounding the frustration is the tedious approach, which consists of a short drive to the parking area, followed by a long journey (about 45min to 1.5hr, depending on what sector I’m redpointing at) in a biologically hazardous environment (with the sole advantage that I can sleep during this stage of the approach), and concluding with a 15min walk, and an 8-story ascent up a fixed cable. At the end of each redpointing session, I reverse the process to return home, at which point I pour over climbing Biographies, Instagram posts, Guidebooks, and my own nostalgic photos of RADventures™ from times long past. Rinse and repeat, ad infanitum, ad nauseum

I’m not entirely sure how to gauge success on this redpointing process, as the obscure ethics for a valid tick and flick aren’t entirely clear yet, so it seems that I just keep on throwing myself at my goal, while waiting for some external entity to declare final success or failure.

Regardless, in the meantime I need to stick with it (maybe out of a sense of masochism?), and so the siege continues, with no specific end in sight (though if I move to Tasmania permanently within the next few years, the siege will have to end out of necessity).

But aside from that particularly unfulfilling siege, we have:

Tientel (200m 6-Pitch Trad 21 R)

After several months with no climbing (but a tonne of stretching and strengthening exercises, and a veritable plethora of anti-inflammatories), I felt like my busted elbow had recovered enough to return to more interesting climbing-related activities, and –for some ridiculous reason-, I talked the irrepressible Neil Monteith into having a crack at Tientel (200m 6-Pitch Trad 21 R).

Why Tientel? Well, first of all, the old guidebook made it sound spectacular, tackling at “soaring line” with plenty of roofs, and quite sustained in the Trad 20-21 range (not to mention a hefty assortment of stars), but also because a few other trad climbers of my acquaintance had mentioned interest in climbing it, which –naturally- piqued my own curiosity. A bit of fast talking and Neil was hooked, and so it was that (a few months ago) we found ourselves once again descending the main Pierces Pass walking track in pursuit of obscure game.

Day 3 on the Kokoda, and still no sign of the enemy...
But I know that they're out there... I can smell them..."Sport climbers... ugh."
Just past Grasshopper, you break-off from the main track, and follow a footpad downhill and across a stream (essentially reversing the Yileen Canyon exit track), and past the super-popular Bladderhozen (and Neil’s far superior Iron Throne (4-Pitch Sport 24)) before arriving at the end of Yileen Canyon. From here on out, the “track” went full Kokoda, as we descended into the heart of darkness, battling through wall-of-tree, becoming properly ensnared in Aragog’s Webs (read: clinging Lawyer vines), and managing to take the better part of 30min to travel about 100m from the end of Yileen Canyon, to our ultimate destination. Even early in the morning, and still in the shade, the humidity was through the roof, and the forecast for the day could be summed up with a single word: “inferno”... It was going to be a hot one, and Neil had brought a mere trickle of water with him to get him through the climb.

Neil starts up Pitch 1... I said we were briefly inspired, right?
Arriving at the base of the route, we were briefly inspired by what was –clearly- a soaring corner-crack line heading some 200m up the face in front of us, interrupted by several imposing-looking rooflets. The key word to the last sentence was briefly as, alas, by the time we’d scrambled down to where the climb actually started from, we were considerably less inspired.

The start of Pitch 2... Mega!
The first pitch (15m 15) looked utterly hideous, and –as it would turn out- climbed as grotesquely as it appeared. Fortunately for me, it was Neil’s lead and not mine, so with a sarcastic “have fun, Monty!”, he commenced stemming up moss, vegetation and loose rock. After staring death in the face (via 8m of unprotectable loose mank), he achieved a “tolerable” piece of protection in the corner, before traversing along a shale ledge to the belay. Stitching the stance up with a barrage of dubious gear, Neil put me on belay, and -emulating his grovelling effort-, I joined him on the stance, and set about “admiring” the next pitch (50m 20).

Looking back down Pitch 2, moments after Neil was
swallowed up by the Triffids on their quest to take over
Pierces Pass (East Side).
It started with teetering blocks immediately above the belay, progressed to a completely vegetated crack at a moderately challenging angle, and concluded with a “bit of nice rock near the top, up there-” (to quote Neil). Well wouldn’t you know it, this pitch also climbed about as “spectacular” as it looked. I balanced by way up the precarious death-blocks. Whimpered my way (with minimal protection) past the overgrowth –deviating from the main crack line and climbing a more technical crack on the face to the right at one point in order to find gear-, and arrived at the “bit of nice rock”, which –If I’m honest- did look fairly good. It turned out that it was slightly loose and a bit flakey, but encompassed about 15m of worthwhile laybacking up vague steepness with ticky-tac feet to the belay.

My belay while Neil excavates half the cliff
on my head. Fun!
This experience of “lots of crap” end-capped by “a little bit of great climbing” became our mantra for the day, as Neil soon found out on his next lead (50m 20). Almost immediately off the belay he encountered a rooflet, which wasn’t particularly hard, but was committing and poorly protected. After excavating a cubic metre of mud and vegetation onto my head (unlike me, Neil is more than happy to dig-out cracks with his nutkey to find gear… I usually can’t be bothered and just keep climbing), he bouldered out the roof-turn and was abruptly devoured up by an easy-grade offwidth-cum-chimney. Despite blocks buried in the back of the chimney just waiting to brain an inattentive belayer, the steep feature itself was quite reasonable and harboured a few devious moves. The pitch concluded, however, with an exposed steep-layback to exit the chimney, which was engaging, if nothing else. Monty dispatched the pitch with ease (and a minimum amount of whimpering) and I didn’t find it too terrible (for an adventure route).

Neil digging into the bowels of the earth on P2.
He has clearly missed his calling in life: coal mining.

"Hopes were on the rise, but inevitably they were about to be crushed..."


Me seconding Pitch 3... I'll concede
that this part wasn't too bad...
Shame about the other 190m.
At about this point, Neil had finished off his miniscule supply of water and had incorporated complaining about dehydration and delirium into his act, whereas I was selfishly hording mine, whetting my tongue with a single splash of water as a reward for every pitch climbed, saving it all for the final push to the top, when the real weariness and thirst would set in (and, naturally, pretending that I didn't have any left to share with Monty... yeah, I'm that kind of selfish bastard).

Neil, clearly in the delusional death throes of extreme dehydration.

A moment of pleasant steep stemming after having
just turned the shaley death-roof of deathly death.
This photo really doesn't convey how crap the
rock really is.
Next up was a 30m 21, featuring the biggest, proudest roof on the route, split by a wide-crack, and followed by a steep corner crack, all of which looked quite appealing. Setting off, I rapidly discovered that there was no REAL gear for 7m off the belay (due to the shattered rock in the crack), and the roof itself was naught but shale, surrounded by more shale. The only protection I could find was to climb part-way into the shale roof (bridging on shale, and clinging gingerly to more shale), and stuffing the number 5 cam at the back of the wide crack (in… wait for it… SHALE!). Though it was obvious that the moves weren’t going to be very hard, I’ll admit that I was bloody terrified, and up-climbed and down-climbed for about 20min, refusing to commit or to bail. Eventually, I climbed up too far and was accidentally fully committed. Shaking and whimpering (and inventing expletives that –without the context of the moment- make absolutely no sense in hindsight), I turned the roof, feet road-runnering on the disintegrating opposing wall, and lunged for a solid jam in the corner crack. Once there, I could get a stance and some real gear, and the rest of the pitch (though continuing the theme of looseness) wasn’t overly offensive.

The end of Pitch 4... this is actually good
climbing, by comparison to the rest of
the route.
Yet again, we foolishly succumbed to a moment of hope, a brief ray of light cast by the next pitch (40m 21), which seemed a fairly pleasant thinning steep corner crack, tackling another large roof near the top on good-looking rock… Then Neil started climbing it, and we wondered why –after the previous 4 pitches- we hadn’t learned our lesson yet about the nature of this climb.

Don’t get me wrong, the rock looked intriguing, the line was eye-catching, and the moves turned out to be radical, all of the set-pieces were in position for a beautiful end-cap to this obscure multi-pitch debacle… But Tientel really, REALLY wanted to be certain the door wholloped us on our collective arses on the way out, and for Monty it pulled out all the stops.

Pitch 5... Vegetated and crap gear...
but surprisingly funky!
The rock was –as per the norm- quite average, the gear was spaced and marginal (often placed in disintegrating slots), and wet vegetation had overrun anything that could possibly be called a hold. Like a good soldier, Neil went into battle, and whimpered, whinged, gardened, scrapped, and thrutched ever upwards, using some impressive and improbable bridging to get around the overgrown holds (by, essentially, avoiding using any holds at all). He turned the roof of the corner, and was out of sight for a good 30min, with only a barrage of dug-out vegetation and the odd cursive comment as proof of the fact that he was –in fact- still alive on the sharp end of the rope.

Finally, after an actual eternity, he was done and dusted, and it was my turn to follow. And follow I did, doing my best impression of Neil (complete with whimpering, whinging, gardening, scrapping, thrutching and bridging), and soon I too had turned the roof and was confronted with a fused, chossy corner-system, with thin slab moves totally overgrown by lichen and vegetation. After removing the gear immediately after the roof, Neil helpfully warned me “I’m on a really bad belay here… whatever you do, don’t fall”. Thanks Neil.

Trad Checklist Item #34:
awkward dirty roof-turn... check!
Arriving at the belay (which was, I can verify, really bad), the final grade 12 pitch loomed before us. Perhaps, after a bushfire to reduce the rainforest growing out of the mank to nought but ash it was climbable as only moderately terrible grade 12. As it was now, it was transcendentally bad, and earns a coveted podium finish on my list of “worst pitches of climbing I’ve ever done anywhere ever in any style”. With no protection in sight, and very little visible rock (and with even the mere thought of touching these small patches of rock being enough for it to break off), all I was doing was pulling on small, fragile tufts of muddy grass and using my climbing shoes like crampons, as I kicked my front points into the muck and complained my way upwards. This was not the “vaguely tolerable” vegetation that we purveyors of the esoteric are used to, as that stuff generally holds long enough for you to make upward progress. No, this was a particularly sadistic and malevolent form of vegetation, that taunted you by looking “okay”, but in reality it wasn’t really attached to anything at all. Upward progress was hard, solely because it was unfathomable: “how do I go up, when anything I touch disintegrates?”

Tasty, Tasty Canyon water...
After an incalculable amount of time, and having taken my abilities in expletives to previously unfathomable height, I wormed my way over the top, and the climb was -thankfully- in the past tense.

After Monty joined me on the top, we shared the remaining 14 millilitres of water I had remaining, and descended back through the jungle by way of “vegetation surfing” down a near-vertical gully, and a full 60m abseil back to the ground. After another thousand years to bush-bash back to the start of the route and retrieve our gear, we meandered back to the cars, and the day was done.

Alright, a rating of the route...

Ummm… if you read my above Trip Report, do you REALLY need a rating? You’re gonna push me on the point? Really? Seriously? Alright, alright, sheesh…

Mmmm... Popular!
It was adventurous and seldom climbed (both positives), yet almost the entirety of every pitch was overrun with vegetation, choss and dirt. Sections of climbing were okay, but much of the gear was woeful. The approach and exit were only worthwhile if you’re keen on re-enacting the Australian soldiers’ journey along the Kokoda Track. Hence my conclusion:

Even in the “adventurous trad multi” category, I’d give this one a miss. 0.5/3 Obscurist stars (which seeks to also factor in that there is appeal in a lack of appeal amongst certain Obscurist types).

After this experience, maybe I’ll stick to sport climbing from now on…

Seriously thought, I often get asked why -since I basically spend my whole time complaining about these obscure routes, and telling everyone not to do them- I keep on seeking out and climbing them anyway... The answer is that there's an appeal in the unappealing, and in repeating the seldom repeated, and in debunking the (sometimes hilarious) stars and reputations that come to be ascribed to routes rarely climbed. There's also a special kind of lunacy that comes with both fear, and a particular sort of masochistic shared suffering. I enjoy a lot of these routes, not for the routes themselves, but for the experiences (often enjoyed through the anecdotes they form, or with the beauty of hindsight) that they produce through their hideousness.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Swansong Part 2: The Final Countdown

The transformation from van-bound climbing bum
to "respectable" Telstra-employee is almost complete...
On the previous episode of The Climbing Obscurist we cut to commercial right as I was nearing my final few days of freedom before I was due to commence a new job at Telstra... After 2 years and 1 month as a professional climbing bum(bly). The race was on to pack in as much climbing as possible before rejoining the workforce as a contributing member of society, and my time-intensive pursuit of the truly obscure had to take a backseat to training and convenience climbing.

Part of the reason why this felt like a "countdown to the apocalypse" was because my new job, a new Uni Course, and necessary downtime to heal from two problematic injuries I'd been enduring for a while (one of which was a damaged bone in my finger) were all coalescing to keep me from my passion for a fairly hefty chunk of time. I knew I'd come back weaker, with less time, and without the good headspace for runouts and dangerous climbing... I might never be as "good" a climber as I was at this time. The clock was ticking...

If any of you were following the Chockstone thread pertaining to my ascent of Alive in a Bitter Sea (covered in the last episode of The Climbing Obscurist), it created something of a furore over the fact that I had headpointed the route, and that in reality (unless you're a proper strong climber) the nature of the route lends itself solely to headpointing, thereby making it inaccessible to 99.9% of climbers. For me personally, it was also great to see the original First Ascensionist -Warwick Baird, one of my local heroes- make a rare appearance to congratulate me on the ascent, and to add his opinion to the "lively debate".

I bring this up because, fundamentally, the foundation of the argument was that going Ground-Up Onsight is stylistically the "highest ideal" in climbing, and routes that are designed to be headpointed very seldom lend themselves to that ideal (unless you're such a strong climber that it almost negates headpoint aspect of the route entirely)...

Well, in stark contrast to last weeks' efforts, this final update of The Climbing Obscurist (for now) is all about the ground-up epic, which -despite the fact that I DO enjoy headpointing- is still my preferred style. I like climbing boldly into uncertain territory, and have often forgone what would be straightforward "pre-inspected flash-ascents" for the sake of a pure ground-up Onsight (which I've subsequently failed).

So, strap yourself in to your manky, "should've been replaced years ago" seatbelt-webbing harness, and enjoy the ride!

SPOILER ALERT: The descriptions contained within this blog update are detailed enough that they might ruin your potential onsight... Read at your own risk!

Day 1 (Wednesday): Piddo Free-Soloing and Texas Tea (50m Sport 24)

With the clock ticking until my scheduled execution, and feelings of mortality descending upon me as I was drawn back into the "real world" from this phantasmagorical dream I've been spellbound by for over 2 years, naturally I needed something to bring me back down to earth... Hence I went out to Mount Piddington to do some free soloing.

In lieu of any photos of this, here's one of
me during my mighty dreadlock years.
Crack climbing is about the only time when I'm climbing where I truly know how I feel... That's not to say that I won't fall off, but I can assess with 99% accuracy how solid I am, how slippery things are feeling, or how confident I am with a jam at any given time. I find that there are less external/environmental factors which will determine whether or not I fall off (an unexpected slip off a crimp, or breaking a hold, or committing to a point where I can't reverse a sequence), and as such, cracks are usually the only thing I'm comfortable free-soloing.

First up was Hocus Pocus (8), which I'd never actually done before, but turned out to be a spectacular 45m sustained slab with varied and interesting moves, and great quality rock. It's a bit of a laugh to call this Grade 8, as it would probably be grade 16 at Shipley, but with no rope to keep me safe I stayed engaged the entire way, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Classic.

Next was an Alzheimer's Onsight Free Solo of The Cartheginian (15), which I'd done on my first trip to Piddo many years before, but never again since. Once again, it was a beautiful route to free solo, although the slightly wide middle-section gave me pause (due to the insecurity of the crack) before I found my fortitude and continued. Enjoyable.

With no photos of this either, here's another one of me during
my... ummm... leopard-print sport-shorts years.
The entry-level quintessential jam crack Psychopath (18) was the next objective. Very straightforward stylistically, and with solid jams throughout, only its slightly strenuous nature (relatively speaking) earns it the grade. I probably felt more secure on this than on The Cartheginian, and it was so nice that I free solo'd it twice. Beautiful.

At this point in time I really wanted to free solo Flake Crack (18), but as the summer sun had reached the cliff, I figured that I'd do a lap on Top Rope Solo first to decide how it felt in the heat. As it was, it felt fine, and I cruised my way up it... but I decided that it wasn't worth the risk of a spoogy slip free-soloing this in the sun, and decided to forgo another lap today. Varied and of consistently great quality climbing, Flake Crack is a true staple at the grade. Delightful.

Finally, I did a TRS inspection of Tombstone Wall (15), and decided that it didn't feel too bad despite the baking sun. The bouldery start, followed by an engagingly thin traverse and a juggy steep finale was made more captivating by deviating into the slightly harder adjacent slab middle-section of Rogue Cop (18). Feeling solid, I also free solo'd this one. Then decided to call it a day. Memorable.

For my next serving I detoured to Renitz Pass in the afternoon shade to have a crack at Texas Tea (50m 24), a proud arete on the Buttress west of I Was a Teenager for the CIA (2-pitch 50m 24), which I'd eyed eagerly from several other climbs, but never gotten around to having a crack at. Reportedly extremely hard to onsight, it starts in the middle of the buttress, traverses airily left below a small roof to gain the arete, then doggedly climbs the arete all the way to the top. Written up as a giant singlepitch (which is how I climbed it), it's worth noting that it actually has a half-height belay on a good stance, so it can very easily be broken up into 2 pitches.

The line of Texas Tea (50m 24)
As it was, I approached it by deliberately not investigating the route at all (not pre-placing, chalking or cleaning any of the bolt plates/quickdraws), and trying to make it as "ground-up" as possible (all things considered). The traverse under the roof looks intimidating, but it's not actually very hard, merely airy. After gaining the arete you have a brief 6m section of very intense and very pure insecure arete climbing, which is gripping and totally rad. After that, however, it's about 25m of fairly predictable (though not unpleasant) grade 22 arete and face-climbing on inferior rock, making it a very cruxy route.

As it was, I kind of cruised the whole route, and -despite the brief intense section- didn't find it too hard for an old-school gr24 arete. I'd definitely call I Was a Teenager for the CIA harder, though Texas Tea is probably more cruxy, and more intimidating (in part due to the quality of the bolts, no two of which are facing the same direction in the rock, and most of which are in varying states of decomposition... however I will attest that all of the bolt are positioned so that the plates are fairly easy to place on lead).

Perhaps not as good a route as I'd hoped, and certainly not as good as it looks (being an obvious and proud arete), but still fairly enjoyable.

An arvo doing some Sporty Sport climbing at Boronia with Jenga, Dave Hoyle, Ro Latimer and others, and Day 1 was done and dusted... But already a plan was forming for day 2:

Day 2 (Thursday): Blue Ruin (200m 6-pitch Sport 25) - feat. Ro-Boat!

Ro was after something "long, rather than hard" (keep your filthy, filthy mind out of the gutter, people!), and I was more psyched for a multi than more sporty sport redpointing, so we agreed upon Blue Ruin (200m 6-pitch Sport 25) at Pierces Pass. This was one of the few sport multis I hadn't climbed at The Pass, and I was looking forward to it. Another Mikl special, the lower half of Blue Ruin's 200m length tackles an obvious crack-cum-seam weakness (which makes it an obvious line from the ground) before breaking free and launching up the imposing face above for the top 3 pitches.

Being Masters of The Pass, Ro and I were at the base of the route before we could blink (though thoroughly saturated from the overnight rain still lurking on the plentiful vegetation), and Young Ro set about Pitch 1 (gr22).

After an inauspicious start (the rock isn't particularly great), you gain the corner crack, which gets progressively steeper as you journey up it for 40m. Negotiated via laybacking, stemming, jamming, and the odd bit of face climbing, the crux comes at the steepest part of the crack, where all the footers mysteriously vanish and you have to get physical for a few moves. Sure, it's a bit sandy, but generally it's an enjoyable pitch. After briefly stalling out on one of the easier moves, he ended up cruising it and I managed it clean on Second.

Low down on P5 of Blue Ruin, with
terrific exposure below.
The real money of Blue Ruin is P2, which follows the now-fused seam for 45m of sustained technicality (and much thinness), with a particularly nails crux through (and past) a roof at about 8m height. Originally graded 24, this pitch is every bit a 25, and is bloody great climbing, which would readily stand on its own as a single-pitch route off the ground at pretty much any major crag in the Blueys. I blew the Onsight on the moves past the roof (trying to figure out the holds/sequence), and then proceeded to fall off the last move of this sequence about a million more times as I struggled to get the draw on the next bolt. When the draw was on it was fine to clip and the sequence was totally doable (though still challenging), but I got rather pissed off trying to get it on in the first place, and the Grose Valley was graced by all manner of politically incorrect vitriol. Truth be told, this particular bolt position proved to be my only criticism of this spectacular pitch, and it was disappointing not to get it clean. Well, that is to say, that I didn't get it clean, Ro, however, channeled his inner Joe Frasier to bear and attacked this pitch like a brawler, managing to score it clean on second!

The third pitch is short and punchy at 22, but thoroughly enjoyable as you continue to meander up the fused seam, cranking on some strange vertical shale-features. Amidst the funky climbing were some of the funkiest sculptured-rock formations I've encountered in the Blueys, and after an appropriate amount of time pondering the artistic value of our discovery, Ro-Boat took control of the pitch, and I followed in style.

By this point we'd reached the halfway ledge, where it's possible to traverse back to Lunch Ledge (via the Traverse of Shame) if you need to. In typical Choss-Seeker style, I ended up with the rather loose and manky P4, which involves wandering around atop teetering blocks of sand and avoiding the most undercut section of the roof. With only 6 bolts to protect 25m (18), the first of which was about 5m up, I felt a bit undergunned in the protection department. Sure, the climbing was easy, but the disintegrating cheese that I was gingerly pulling on meant that a fall was both possible, and likely going to end on one of the many ledges on this pitch.

Nearing the top of P5 (23/24) right as the sun nears us.
In typical climbing connoisseur style, Ro ended up with the last of the crux pitches, and the next best pitch on the route after the 2nd Pitch. Officially graded 24, it's probably more in the "sustained, but not particularly cruxy" grade 23 range. It consists of 45m of impossibly blank-looking face-climbing on ironstone micro-edges, with derivatives of the same moves coming again and again as you meander your way upwards. It's intense because you rarely get a decent handhold to "chill out on", and pumpy only because you're basically holding the same tiny holds again and again for the duration of the pitch. Ro did a spectacular job working the tic-tacs as he sought to find congealed air molecules masquerading as holds in order to progress, successfully onsighting the pitch and leaving enough chalk on the holds to make my own route-finding on second a bit easier...

...or so I thought. I still managed the pitch clean, but totally stalled out for about 20min on a single sequence that seemed grade 1 million. Fighting to piece it together, I only just managing to sort it out before I got too pumped. Regardless, it was an enjoyable -if repetitive- pitch, with some of the little holds feeling potentially friable, but in reality neither of us broke anything of consequence off.

The final pitch, also mine (why do I keep ending up with these junk pitches?), was a fairly predictable (and quite rubbish) Blueys exit pitch, which was so uninspiring that I can't even remember what grade it is, only that it is 15m long, extremely easy, hosts terrible rock, and is protected by only 2 bolts. The exit from the top of the climb involves some shrub-bashing across the top of the Mirrorball Face, and down a series of rocky gullies to regain the usual Lunch Ledge access track.

With the route done, we were back at the car by 1430hrs, for a 6.5 hour round-trip (car to car). Time for some drinking!

As to the route: I'd give it 2 stars and call it "one of the better hard-ish Blueys Sport Multis", but not as good as Regular Route, Weaselburger or Smegadeth. It essentially consists of 2 Great pitches, 2 Good pitches, and 2 utterly hideous pitches... a pretty standard breakdown for a Blueys multi, really.

Day 3 (Friday): Change Planets (40m 25) - feat. Ro-Boat, Macca, Kamil & Kerrin!

I'd previously been asked by the indomitable Macciza if I'd be willing to climb Change Planets (40m 25) on Dogface for a part of a film he was making with Kamil Sustiak about the history of Dogface, and -in particular- his and Zac Vertrees' own goal to free-climb Colossus. I'd said yes at the time, and upon realising that my days were numbered, I arranged with Macca to head out on Friday afternoon to have a crack at it, and get the filming done.

The Mighty Dogface. Change Planets (40m 25) climbs
approximately where the red line is.
There probably aren't many serious Australian climbers who don't know about The Dogface at Katoomba. Formed by a series of major landslides throughout 1931, and several smaller collapses throughout the decades, the stunningly sheer face that remains has more in common with a day at the beach than with conventional rock climbing, yet harbours a peculiar charm (especially for the choss connoisseur). Most detest the "climbing" (and I use that term very "loosely"... Pun also intended) up teetering prehistoric sand, but a select few rave ad naueseum about it and hold the place as the spiritual centre of Australian climbing, if not the entire universe. Regardless of where you stand, you'd have to be blind not to be inspired by it, and foolhardy not to respect its looming, malevolent, cyclopean prominence.

Yet another Mikl "classic", Change Planets tackles an upper 40m section of the terrifying Dogface, on ancient carrot-bolts in varying stages of returning to their natural elements. Held in by wadding (because the rock is so sandy, the normal hand-drill bash-in method leaves holes that are too "loose" to hold the bash-in bolts in, meaning that every bolt looks like it has a cloth "ruff" around it), this is a far cry from a sport climb. The location, protection and nature of the route is anything but a "consumer sport route", though its obscurity, outrageous position, and a pretty funky write-up in the guidebook have always made it a route I've been "meaning to have a crack at". In fact, it's so obscure, that I'd previously made 2 unsuccessful trips to try and find the top of the route (so I could have a look at it for a prospective lead in the future), but never managed to work out exactly where the route went.

Ro cops a sandblasting.
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak
( )
Aiming for a late afternoon start (in the hideous summer sun) to "get the best light for the filming" (and apparently maximise suffering for all participants), Ro (seemingly a chronic masochist on the basis that he was up for another consecutive day of climbing for me (!), and on another adventurous route to boot(!!)) and I rapped in at about 4:30pm, after Kamil, Macca and Kerrin got their cameras and sound apparatus into position. The belay was almost fully-hanging, off an assortment of dubious bolts, pins, some random brackets, and faith in a higher deity to keep you safe. From this stance, there is a good 100m of empty air below you (including the the fall-away of the steep scree/rubble slope below Dogface).

A part of the purpose of filming Change Planets was to capture the "epic" of a "ground-up" attempt on a route like this one, so the fact that I was "willing to have a go" and hadn't tried the route before made me an ideal candidate... But I figured that if I was going to go for a ground-up effort, I'd go for the Pure Onsight attempt, by not pre-placing draws or bolt plates (meaning I would be lugging 17 plates with me!), not even looking at the route on the rap in, nor scrubbing or ticking anything. As it would turn out, this made it particularly exciting due to the nature of the bolts: 2 were missing entirely, 1 was a corroded lump of unusable tetanus, and 2 were rocking a classic "hourglass" shape, whereby the section the bolt plates would be resting on were 1/4 the width that they should be (due to corrosion)... fortunately, I wouldn't discover this until I arrived at the bolts in question (ignorance is bliss), and my knowledge of metallurgical tensile strengths is non-existent.

Before I forget, here's a top tip for young players: when climbing with this many bolt plates on a route where being able to actually get to the chalk in your chalk bag is crucial, bring a second smaller "dipper" chalk bag solely for the plates! You won't regret it.

Will this tic-tac explode?
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
With Ro watching carefully (though not actually looking at me, since I'd forgotten to arrange safety goggles for him, and sandblasting-induced blindness was a very real concern) I threw myself headfirst at the route, which -in typical Blueys fashion- is hard right off the belay. Tough, thin and sandy, I was sketched my way past the first two bolts. Struggling to put the bolt plates on, my feet pasted insecurely on scarily small and fragile nubbins, the intensity was high as I made it a grand total of 4-bolts up before flash-pump (it wasn't such a good warmup), terrified overgripping, and poor technique (due to not trusting my feet) got the better of me, and I was "off". Taking my first lob onto a hideously corroded bash-in carrot bolt held-in by wadding was a decidedly spiritual experience. Remarkably it held, and with my faith in these bolts restored, I was back in the fight.

I won't describe the whole route, because -to be honest- I don't really remember it all. In the heat of the moment -the fear, the desperation-, much of it kind of became a blur of movement, pump, despair (at my imprudence), and a veritable waterfall of sand. The missing bolts meant that there were a few exciting runouts between some of the tougher moves (including above one of the cruxes), and the seriously dubious nature of other bolts (and the generally dubious nature of all of the bolts) made any and every fall one of hideous anticipation. Having said that, though, not a single one of the bolts came out (and I had probably 6 falls on my ground-up attempt of the route)... That fact alone didn't stop me from shrieking on some of the falls, and images of taking a monster whip manifested before my eyes.

"Aaaaand pounce!"
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
The route is rather sandy (would you believe?), and a constant cascade of granules rained down upon Ro as I climbed. Yet once I resigned myself to the fact that every hold would be sandy, suddenly it didn't feel so intolerable. A lot of the footers you have to trust are tiny and not really attached by much, yet once I resigned myself to the fact that I had to use them, they were fine to use (and I never actually broke any of them). In fact, I only broke off one proper big block, which bounced off the wall and exploded into a meteor shower of debris (fortunately missing Ro, who was lashed into the belay and unable to avoid any accidental missiles lobbed in his direction). Weirdly, as the journey progressed, all of these factors seemed only to add to the epic of it, and I found a strange kind of enjoyment.

The climbing itself is extremely thin, slightly steep face climbing, with sustained bad feet. Often I would end up extremely strung-out, with high feet and a big pounce being necessary to progress. There are perhaps 8 drilled pockets on the route, which are extremely hard to see from below. Several times I would be questing around desperately for a hold, about to pump off, when I would suddenly spot the crucial chipped pocket and lunge for it... sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I felt like I threw myself at the climb boldly, and never shouted "take" or just gave up. I climbed until I fell (usually because I was terminally pumped), often launching for some "okay" looking hold in the distance in the faint hope that it was an improbable jug. But despite my efforts, I still had 6 falls. I think that I could probably tick the route in another shot or two, but by the time Ro and I had topped out it was getting late, and we were out of time.

Wild gesticulations and mosquitos by moonlight.
Ro Latimer, Macca, and myself.
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
Ro followed me up, having a similar experience as myself: some epic flash pump, some tricky route finding, a few exciting falls, and a weird sort of masochistic enjoyment. It's one of those things that's hard to describe in writing, yet it happened nevertheless: we had fun! As Ro topped out, the sun vanished for the day, and amidst an onslaught of mosquitos and wild gesticulations of excitement, we packed up our extensive gear and made a bee-line for the Leura pub for some "hooray, we survived!" drinks. Funny how many of my climbing days seem to end up like that.

So, what of the route? I have no idea. I enjoyed it, but found it quite intense. The rock is rubbish, but not as terrible as I was expecting; the bolts are atrocious, yet none of them fell out on me; everything is sandy and scary, but I learned to live with it and eventually stopped noticing these attributes; the climbing is tricky, intimidating and hard to read (especially with the chipped holds), but harboured some really engaging moves and was genuinely good. It's got bolts, but it sure as hell isn't a sport climb, and the position is mind-blowing. Is the route any good? I have no bloody idea... but I had a laugh, and I believe that Ro did too.

Day 4 (Saturday): New World Order Crag - feat. Monty!

The Neil Monteith and Frothy Thomson combo teamed up again, for one last RADventure, at our favourite haunt: Sublime Point.

Abseiling in to the New World Order crag.
We warmed up by smashing out Saccharine Nightmare (4-pitch 110m 22) car-to-car in under 2 hours, which I climbed as two giant pitches (a great way to do this climb provided it's not at your limit). Taking a super-direct line up the face starting on the beautiful orange rock 20m right of Sweet Dreams, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience with lots of funky and varied moves, easy access and well bolted... I'd readily recommend it to anyone.

The afternoon, however, was about facilitating the FA of Neil's new multipitches at his SuperSecret™ new Sublime Point East crag, named "New World Order" to commemorate certain... umm... momentous world events occurring as he initially developed the crag. Like the Main East Face (wow, that naming convention is getting confusing) the access is a short walk, followed by a long abseil in, and a multipitch climb-out. The rock quality is generally very good (superior to most of the popular Blueys destinations) though not quite as good as the Classic East Face. At any rate, Neil was psyched about the new routes, and had ambitiously decided to finish equipping one of routes on the same day as we were going to climb them. Good thing Ramset 101 sets in an hour!

On the final tricky arete moves of the
exposed and powerful Wrath of
Froth (25m 24)

After the gluing session was done, I rapped the full 60m rope-length to the fairly cosy belay right on the lip of the face, scarcely a metre above the undercut void, equitably shared by us with a batallion of mosquitos and sauna of humidity.

Monty's first route commences with a hard boulder problem (a deadpoint to a disappointingly bad hold, to another deadpoint), after which it’s intense face-and-arete climbing up a slightly overhanging wall, followed by a much easier upper third. The rock is great, and the position on the beautiful clean-cut arete is stunning. Neil managed the First Ascent of Wrath of Froth (25m 24) on his 2nd attempt of the day, and I was lucky enough to score the "lots of beta" flash of the route, despite Neil sliming it up with sweat. This route actually continues to the top of the cliff (via 2 more pitches) but since we were already on the belay stance for the neighbouring route, we figured that we'd tackle that first, before climbing out via the upper pitches.

The trick kneebar at the end of the hard climbing
on Trumpeter (25m 24). "Almost, but not
quite, 25".
Next up was the much tougher Trumpeter (25m 24), which Monty made look about grade 1000 on his first attempt of the day (it was actually quite entertaining to watch), but somehow pieced it together on the second lap to score the FA of this one as well. My favourite of the two new routes, and described by the intrepid First Ascensionist as: "almost, but not quite 25", it commences with a mantle which looks easy, turns out to be quite hard, and can be done hideously (as I did on my lap) or gracefully. From there it's slick, bullet-hard technical thin-face climbing with holds and feet that face all the wrong directions, and aren't where you want them. Featuring several cruxes on water-polished rock, this pitch just keeps coming at you until you clip the anchor, with countless slippery slimpers to spit you off if you relax for a moment. Once again, I was lucky enough to score the flash (this time with minimal Beta, since Monty's "improvise as you go" approach hadn't left me with much confidence in his technique).

Looking down at me on Pitch 2 (19) of Wrath
of Froth.
With the money pitches of the day done, we climbed out via the upper 2 pitches of Wrath of Froth (grades 19 and 23 respectively). P2 wasn't terrible, but wasn't anything special. P3, however, had some amazing steep climbing with an improbable (and gripping) roof-turn part way up the pitch, and a pretty gnarly boulder-problem finale to the top out, marred only by some dubious rock. Fortunately, both pitches went down first-go for Monty, though the day very nearly concluded with what might've been one of the most hilariously unexpected falls of all time:

Neil looking down at me (about to go into
the final gr23 crux) from the top of the cliff.

The top-out to the cliff is -unfortunately- vegetated, so the plan was to use a length of rope -tied off to a tree at the top- to pull past the final moves back to terra firma. Neil had asked me to set up the rope while he finished his bolting, and left the rope wrapped around a shrub (so it wouldn't slide off the cliff edge). When I rapped in to join him, I'd seen the rope "tied off" (though not really looked too closely at what it was tied off on) and assumed that Neil had ended up doing the work for me. As it was, Neil was on his way into the final (crux) boulder problem, which culminates with a grab for the rope in question, when I revealed to him that I hadn't done anything to the rope, and it was only "tied off" on a shrub. In hindsight, it could've been pretty funny to see Neil lunge for the rope, have it pull free, and go tumbling off into the void... but as it was, with my "11th Hour" warning, he traversed left to the rap rope and climbed out via that. Entry for Rock & Ice Whipper of the Week averted, I joined Monty on the summit above the New World Order wall, with 4 pitches of new climbing done and dusted below us.

Oodles of bolting and First-Ascent
related junk being hauled out of the crag.
Neil has since added 1 upper pitch to Trumpeter (which joins Wrath of Froth for its final pitch) and another Project on the face to the left side of the arete (left of Wrath of Froth P1), with more climbing likely coming soon (knowing Monty).

While this little slice of rock has nothing on the Main East Face (and none of these pitches compare to Subliminal or Sabbatical, though I'm obviously biased), the routes at New World Order stand out in the Blueys for their quality and moderate grade accessibility. They are totally worth a day of psuedo-cragging in a multipitch environment.










Day 5 (Sunday): It Came from Outer Space (70m 3-pitch Mixed 25) - feat. Hugh Sutherland!

Looking up at the line of It Came from
Outer Space (25)
... It doesn't look that hard...
Wow... my final day of climbing freedom before I was to adorn my business shirt and pants once again, and step off the barely-navigable footpad (meandering irrationally through overgrown scrub) of the past 2 years (and one month) of my life and back onto the road most-travelled. Needless to say, I was pretty anxious about starting my new job the following day, but I sure as hell wasn't going to forfeit this one last day of climbing. This time I was joined by Hugh Sutherland (with whom I climbed The Candlestick in Tassie), and we headed out to the Corroboree Walls at Mount Victoria for a bit more old-school ground-up epic.

The only name on our list this time was It Came from Outer Space (70m 3-pitch Mixed 25), which resides on the right-hand side of the buttress shared with Big Red (60m Sport 27). While climbing Big Red I'd observed ICfOS from the ground, but I'd never rapped the route, and had very little idea about what exactly it consisted of. I did, however, have a distant memory of Zac Vertrees telling me once that it was a brilliant route, and (quote) "not too bad", with a sly look on his face. In hindsight, I really should've asked him to elaborate on what exactly about it was "not too bad", cause it sure as hell wasn't the grade!

The hideous, hideous, mantle from hell!!!
Deciding to go light for the onsight attempt, I brought a single light rack of cams and medium wires, and about 10 bolt plates, along with the usual suspects. Inevitably, this meant that I basically used all the wrong gear in all the wrong places, and spent 90% of the first gr25 pitch climbing above sub-optimally-sized cams in less than ideal placements. Still, it made an already exciting climb more exciting, and undeniably more memorable.

ICfOS starts up a fairly unassuming finger crack, past some bad gear and a mantle to a bolt. From there it gets all "classic gritstone" as you pull some thin face moves, stitch up a fused seam with dubious wires, and quest boldly leftwards across the slab to gain the arete (and a bolt) 5m to the left. I can only describe what follows as a "hellish mantle"... Indeed, the sort of mantle to end all mantles, in a vein (and of a particularly disgusting old-school desperate) that only our climbing fore-bearers can actually do. My onsight ended here. I probably didn't need to tell you that, though, I'm pretty sure you guessed it from the previous sentence. Indeed, I can't actually count high enough to convey the number of attempts it took to piece this mantle sequence together, but it was a lot. Thin, slopey, steep, with bad feet and no real way to get purchase on the face in front of you. It was hard... yet also deliciously masochistic. Weird, huh?

Looking down the line of Pitch 1... Purdy.
After complaining my way through that sequence, the route turns all "psuedo-sport", with really powerful moves between crimps and pockets above pretty gnarly gear (at one point I whipped sideways onto a #2 C3 Microcam). It then trucks left to gain the arete, and promptly combo-punches you with insecure, tenuous pure-arete climbing (with 2 bolts inbetween the various gear placements), none of which goes easily. The final kick in the pants comes in the form of an incredibly awkward hanging belay on carrots. About 1.5 hours after I set off on this pitch, I finished building the belay and collapsed exhaustedly onto it. If it weren't for the grade 2-million mantle, I'd call this an old school tough 25, but I have no idea how to grade a mantle of that level of intensity. It's the sort of pitch I could do 2nd shot (and the quality of the climbing and the rock certainly inspire another lap) if it weren't for the mantle, which is a totally unknown variable for me.

After Hugh joined me on the belay (vindicating the difficulty of the pitch, as -despite a valiant effort- he too got rather schooled by the old-skool on this pitch), I set about P2 and P3, which I decided to link into a 35m pitch. Officially grade 23, it's pretty full-on at the grade (the theme of this climb), with some steep, pouncy (but fairly juggy) moves up the arete, to another hellish mantle on the arete itself.  As you might've guessed, I fell off here as well (did I mention that I suck at mantling?), but pulled back on and went to the top without any further falls. The rest of the pitch is thin, slabby face-and-arete climbing on rock quality which deteriorates into humdrum grey-rock and a few more mantles (what IS it with this route and mantles?). Continuing past the belay, I climbed the third pitch up the grey slab above (gr18) past 1 bolt and 2 cam placements, for an excitingly runout (but extremely easy) finale, topping out atop a big detached block perched on the summit of the buttress.

Looking down the line of P1 & P2 from the belay below
Once again Hugh had a similar experience to myself (with respect to difficulty and falls), and joined me at the top just as the torturous summer sun arrived to set the wall ablaze. Needless to say, we beat a tactical retreat to the pub, to debate the quality of the route.

It's always hard to judge an old-school route with a new-school eye. I like to think that I'm somewhat capable of bridging that gap, due to a certain penchant for the old-school routes, but a similar passion for new routing and new-school routes. Mixed climbing is my all-time favourite style of climbing, and this route epitomises the best of Mixed climbing in the Blueys, being bold yet never dangerous. The climbing is tough, the rock is (generally) good, and the experience is great... But that mantle is just a bit too old-school even for me, and probably a large chunk of you guys as well. That's not to say that you shouldn't do this route - you totally should, it's awesome!-, but rather that I think you should approach this route knowing that the mantle is something special, even my mantle standards, and not let one shut-down old-school sequence catch you unprepared and influence your experience of the route.

With my Delica still out of action (you might recall that the gearbox exploded on the day I sent Alive in a Bitter Sea), I caught the train home on my own.

And as inauspiciously as that, the sabbatical was over, and this chapter of my life came to a close.


CUE SOUND: People coughing on overcrowded trains, relaxing elevator music, and various quotes from The IT Crowd.

Working hard, or hardly working?
So here I am, back at work at Telstra. Currently I'm mostly based in Parramatta, but in the future 2/3rds of my time will be working in the underground tunnel network in Sydney. The job is engaging, the team is good, and the future prospects are intriguing, so I'm not really in a position to complain (and it is awesome to actually have money again, and be able to buy stuff... like a beanie that ISN'T more holes than material!), but it's definitely been a challenge. Getting used to sitting down again for much of the day, staring at a computer screen ad infanitum, reconfiguring my vocabulary to "office speak" and my mannerisms to "normal human-being" are all hurdles in themselves, but the lack of climbing -due to my injuries- has the biggest psychological hurdle to surmount.

As I write this, it's been 6 weeks since that last day of climbing, and despite sticking doggedly to my "no-climbing" agenda, and attending physio and applying the correct recovery techniques, both my busted finger bone and my mangled elbow don't really feel any better. It's hard to think of the possibility that I'm taking this time off and rapidly becoming a weakling, if it's not actually making any beneficial difference. I still go out and belay my friends on their climbs, and spend as much time outdoors as possible (I did a 58.4km trail-ride on my mountain bike the other day), but it just doesn't satisfy that addictive demand for climbing-induced endorphins that I crave!

But I do feel that, to some extent, I can rest on my laurels: to have concluded my climbing journey with a particularly radical onsight of a soaring line feels like the appropriate bookend to this stage of my life. Oh, I'm not talking about It Came from Outer Space, though that was a pretty rad climbing (but I sure as hell didn't Onsight it), I'm talking about:

The Swansong: Echo Crack (190m 4-Pitch Trad 25) - feat. The 'Stair


Alastair: he's achieved some recognition
 for his abilities... bloody sell out!
Alright, so I didn't quit climbing immediately after I started work. Having spent so much time looking across from Alive in a Bitter Sea (90m 4-pitch Mixed 25 R/X) at this beauty, and knowing that it was drier than normal from our recent spate of rain-free weather, coupled with my fitness (at the time), I felt like I could afford to digress just once. And so it was that at the end of my first week of full-time employment, I joined forces with the kiwi Alastair McDowell (the 'Stair!) to launch up Echo Crack (190m 4-Pitch Trad 25), on an extremely tourist-ridden Saturday. Alastair is an experienced adventure climber, particularly skilled in alpine and ice monstrosities, and at least as frothing mad as I am, so there was never any doubt that we'd make a good team.

Echo crack is an eye-catching line up a soaring corner directly below Echo Point, visible from Honeymoon Point (the Three Sisters). It's one of the more well-known "hard trad” routes in the Blueys, and features as the end cap on many a trad aspirants long list of goals. It has a tendency to be quite wet, and is infamous for some unpleasant "access pitches" to gain the major corner. But as a feature it looms like an imposing monolith, being almost always in the shade and featuring dark grey rock surrounded by a contrasting sea of vibrant orange. Like the North Face of the Eiger, its bleakness gives it majesty, and all crack connoisseurs who gaze upon it are both intimidated and motivated by it.

"Thar she blows!"
Having previous climbed Genghis Khan, I knew the route we would need to take to get to the climb (which is handy, as there is no defined track to the base). However, unlike with Genghis Khan, rather than having to bush bash below the cliff for another 1000 kilometres to get to the start of the route, Echo Crack P1 emerges as a sandy, chossy, low-angled corner at a convenient point in the bush-bashing approach. Since I was to be climbing the crux pitch, I also scored the "awesome" first pitch, and thus, flanked by all manner of historical garbage lobbed from lookout above (washing machine? Check! Street sign? Check! Beer keg? Check! Guardrails? Check!), I set about it.

The top of Pitch 1... "How did this get here? Also, are we
As far as "access pitches" go, it wasn't too terrible. Only moderately so. Actually, to be honest, considering the scathing criticism levelled at the first 2 pitches of Echo Crack, I was surprised to find that it really wasn't particularly bad at all on the scale of "Blueys Access Pitches". It consisted of moderately chossy/sandy juggy corner-crack climbing, in which I opted to use a grand total of 3 pieces of pro in 30m. It wasn't offensively bad, nor even vaguely hard, and -most importantly- climbing it didn't give me Syphilis (which, considering the criticism levelled at it, I could only deduce that other ascensionists can't have had the same fortune when tackling this pitch), so that's always a bonus. In reality, I was far more likely to contract Syphilis from the amount of rubbish at the base of the cliff, than from a slightly loose opening pitch (pun intended).

The 'Stair stemming and laybacking his
way up Pitch 2 (18)... About to
embrace The Choss!
Alastair launched up the next pitch, graded 18 by the guidebooks' reckoning, commencing with a shallow corner split by a fingercrack, which soon expands into a fully-fledged stemming corner. It's also worth pointing out that there are several ways you could choose to do the start of this pitch, but The 'Stair -naturally- decided to tackle The Line™ up the incipient fingercrack, and in doing so created the crux of the pitch. After some initial sketchiness (a broken footer as he approached groundfall territory), he gained the corner proper and cruised his way to the top. The upper section of this pitch crosses some scarily loose shale-territory, with no supplemental gear after you leave the corner and embrace the choss, but as far as loose-climbing in the Blueys goes, it wasn't too bad, and Alastair made it to the belay fairly quickly... which was good, because I was being eaten alive by mosquitos, and was mere moments away from becoming anaemic by this point. Following him clean on second, I was reminded that -as with the first pitch- this pitch wasn't really all that bad for a moderate pitch of Blueys trad, and if it weren't for the 5m of shale at the top it would probably be regarded as a reasonably good pitch. Don't let the naysayers influence your opinion, friends, the access pitches for Echo Crack really aren't all that bad. And best of all, no Syphilis (yet)!

Mantling out some shale at the end of P2.
Now we were at the start of the corner-proper, and the infamous crux pitch. The start of Alive in a Bitter Sea resided 5m to our right, so there was a distinct feeling of homeliness as I racked up for the 40m gr25 pitch in front of me. I was carrying a fair bit of gear (a single rack of 0.4 - 4, with double #1 and #2, and 7 x #3 Cams), but most of it was geared towards the marathon crack after the initial crux, meaning that if I wanted the Onsight, a runout was on the cards.

Reaching a good jam at the end of the crux,
and breathing a sigh of relief. You can
see my last cam hanging out of the crack
near the lower-left side of the picture.
With no protection off the belay (by choice, I didn't want to waste any of my smaller cams on the easier pre-crux moves) I bouldered out the initial steep, juggy, sandy and damp face moves to gain the main part of the crux, and wacked in a small cam and wire about 3m off the ledge. A mixture of extremely tight (overcammed #1) jams and face climbing (heels are very useful!) and I scored an okay #1 cam in wet and sandy rock, and a dubious big wire just above. The hardest moves of the crux followed, utilising wet, tight jams and small face holds to get established in the crack proper. From there, a spot of laybacking off the incipient crack, and some funky gymnastics to gain a stemming stance, and the climbing eases off. Ideally, you would place another cam (probably another #1) to protect this sequence (and back up the other placements with more adjacent gear), but as I was Onsighting (and rapidly burning energy due to the steepness and the wet nature of the crack) I knew that I didn't have time to place any more pro. I just had to gun for it! I committed fully to the sequence, burling my way up it and stemming like a madman, and right as I was at the point where I was back into ledgefall territory (or past it, if any of the gear in the wet/sandy rock blew) the crux was over. In my opinion, it's not too hard a sequence for gr25, and if you pre-placed the gear it would be very doable at reasonable 24. Furthermore, despite my decision to rely on minimal gear, there are lots of gear options (if you can hang around to place them).

The rest of the pitch was enjoyable stemming and wide-hands crack climbing (with a little bit of off-width thrown in for good measure) on pleasant rock and with spectacular exposure. At about grade 21, the moves were classic trad, and due to its very stance-friendly nature, it wasn't particularly intense. As it was I only used 5 of the 7 #3 cams, and ran it out quite a bit, but I felt totally solid. The belay was on carrots in a reasonably comfortable alcove at a logical point to break up the marathon corner. And thus, with a victory cheer, the crux pitch was done and dusted, and another big goal was achieved.

Alastair followed me up, managing to make it to the final section of the crux (transitioning into the crack proper) before struggling with the tight hands and wet rock, and slipping off amidst a valiant struggle. After that, as with me, the rest of the pitch suited him, and he dispatched it with relative ease. This was good, because the last of the hard pitches was his, and it was a doozy.

This is the true "marathon crack" pitch of the route, and due to its sustained, burly nature, is something of an enigma in the Blueys. At 40m of gr22, it really is 40m of gr22, and you're earning that tick all the way to the anchors. Stylistically, the pitch is slightly steep tight fist-jams (too wide even for the most tipped-out wide-hands for me, but terribly uncomfortable as fists), in an awkward open V-groove, and with surprisingly few features outside of the crack proper. After about 35m of climbing, you leave the crack and follow a line of weirdly positioned carrots in a rising traverse to the left (to avoid the muck and vegetation above), and through some tough face-moves to gain the belay ledge and the safety of terra firma.

The final face moves of P4 (22).
"These moves are kinda... hard dude!"
The 'Stair, with his tape gloves, could definitely make better use of the wide-hands approach than me (in my untaped-state), but with less experience at steep brute-strength jamming he went for the crafty approach: using tic-tac micro-footers for the odd stemming stance, and -at one point- ending up with both hands on one wall and both feet on the other. All in all, it was a technically beautiful Quarryman-esque effort, and amidst much grunting, puffing, and cam-shuffling, he managed to Onsight the Pitch (mere moments after following me up the crux pitch!) for not only his first ever gr22 Trad Onsight, but his first Gr22 Trad tick (and I will readily attest that this is a proper tough pitch at the grade). Nice one Alastair!

For me, despite the jams being about the worst size jams there are, I knew that my brute strength at steep jamming would hold me in good stead, so I ingloriously burled my way up the pitch in classic "Swimming technique", working up quite the pump in the process. The final moves were a bit of a surprise (being very much in a crack-climbing headspace by this point in time), but they were the appropriate icing on the cake for this stellar pitch, as you work some very thin and balancy body positions to rock over a high heel and reach the top-out mantle. Managing this pitch clean as well, and thus the Send of Echo Crack, Alastair and I beat the retreat back up to Echo Point lookout where we emerged from Wall of Tree to confront Wall of Tourist.

Victory pose in front of the hordes at Echo Point!
Unlike myself, Alastair had actually achieved some degree of recognition within the greater climbing community, and was more than happy to embrace the dumbfounded admiration that the tourists rabidly poured upon him, whereas I simply used Alastair as a distraction to slowly back away from the ravenous horde, being careful not to make eye contact. The tourists took photos of themselves posing in front of the three sisters, and I -feeling all meta- snapped a victory photo of Alastair posing in front of the tourists taking photos of themselves posing in front of the three sisters. Some beers to cap a bloody great day, and it was all over. Thanks for the day, Alastair!

It's hard to compare Echo Crack to the other "hard trad” routes I've done in the Blueys, as most of them aren't really very pure crack climbing at the grade. I guess that I would compare it to Samarkand (200m Trad 25), by saying that it's almost as good as Samarkand (which is my favourite trad multi in the Blueys) but not quite. The access pitches to gain the money pitches aren't all that bad (despite their reputation), and the main corner of Echo Crack is spectacular. It's easy to aid past the crux moves at the start of P3, or to pre-place adequate gear to make it safe and climb it pink-point style at about grade 24. If you're a fairly solid trad 22 climber but perhaps not up for the full gr25 experience, I'd definitely recommend the effort of aiding the initial crux and freeing the rest. Outside of the cruxy start to P3, the 80m above is stunning sustained crack climbing in a breathtaking location. At any rate, despite some feedback from other sources to the contrary, I genuinely believe Echo Crack earns its 3 out of 3 stars, and its reputation as an iconic mega classic.


As you might expect of a Frothmaster like me, I'd barely made it back home from Echo Crack before my obsession got the better of me and I started looking for a climbing partner for a ground-up attempt at Iron Lady (4-pitch Mixed 22 R). Iron Lady starts about 5m further right from Alive in a Bitter Sea at Katoomba Cliffs below Echo Point, and is a very similar route, though 2 grades easier (so it’s probably hard 23, in reality).  Having headpointed the shit out of Alive in a Bitter Sea, I really wanted to go for the ground-up Onsight of Iron Lady, being in physically good shape, and in a great headspace for pushing through bold runouts. But try as I might, I couldn't arrange a partner who was both psyched and in whose hands I would feel confident enough to wholeheartedly commit to the attempt, and so it never manifested. Perhaps I'll never be fit enough to undertake such an audacious goal. Who knows?

But perhaps it was for the best. My one digression to launch up Echo Crack was -at some level- justified, but if I lower my boundaries to add Iron Lady into the equation, where does it stop? I've been wanting to get back on Pit Fighter (trad 28) for a while, so why not have a go at that as well? What about Orange Jam (trad 27), Self Portrait (28)? No, I needed the appropriate bookend to stop my obsessed, frothy self from tumbling into self-destruction, and like a meaty roadblock at the end of a washed-out bridge, the Onsight of Echo Crack had done just that. It was time to let it go.

And so I did.